Thursday, December 31, 2009

The mall

Through a combination of jetlag, a quicker than expected oil change, and a need for a new duvet cover, I found myself at a mall at 9:50 this morning. I walked past the food court, drawing suffocating breaths of vaporized sugar and frying oil into my lungs, nodded at the happy, aging mall walkers in their sweatsuits, and arrived in front of Macy's. There, nine other people were already assembled, gazing beyond the closed glass doors into the still dark store. It suddenly dawned on me that for the first time in my life, I was one of that special class of American shoppers who wait, salivating, outside consumer meccas until the first-shift manager slides the doors away, turns the lights on, and beckons us in.

While I waited for the clock to strike 10:00, I read signs. Outside Macy's was a sign warning people they could be kicked out of the mall if they didn't follow the Mall Rules. The first dozen rules were sentence fragments, such as Rule 1: Behavior that threatens the safety or well-being of other mall shoppers, and Rule 7: Illegal drug use and drug paraphernalia. The grammar police clearly have their work cut out for them.

The Mall Rules sign stood near the now-quiet remains of a Santa photo-op display. Artifical trees decorated with starched handknit balls grew on astroturf next to Santa's little hut, surrounded by giant drifts of polyester stuffing and sparkling plastic fluff. In the spirit of holiday cheer, a laminated sheet of paper taped to the white picket fence barked, "NO LEANING ON THE FENCE," then, as an afterthought, added, "NO TOUCHING THE SNOW."

The local Macy's has much in common with Freiburg's Karstadt, but rather than noticing similarities this morning, I noticed differences--in the color palette, in the clothing sizes, in the sprawl of perfume and cosmetics, and in the territorialness with which brand name corporate giants hold sway in different parts of the store. While my needlessly wide automobile with its pudgy steering wheel sat outside in a generously large space on the surface parking lot, I was inside Macy's, riding up an escalator wide enough for a healthy family of three.

The only duvet cover I found was the single floor model. Americans do duvet covers about as often as Germans do top sheets. So rather than buying locally from a national chain, I went home and bought online from Land's End.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Triple modals

The English language provides those who use it with several modal auxiliary verbs (a subset of a larger group of helper verbs): can, could, may, might, must, ought to, shall, should, will, would. Two of the nifty distinguishing qualities of modal auxiliaries are that we don't decline them, and they don't have infinitives. While one might expect to awaken at 4 a.m. due to jetlag, one never expects to should at any time or for any reason; and while petting a happy cat can be quite pleasurable, shoulding a cat is always a bad idea, at least in English.

Speakers of standard English generally consider it ungrammatical for modal auxiliary verbs to help one another. One of the truly delightful things about some regional performances of Southern American English--right up there with "red" being pronounced as a two-syllable word--is that no one bats an eye if you combine conditional modal verbs. (The conditionals are the waffly ones--might, could, should, would, ought to--the modals you might expect to hear followed by but, as in "he would share the Milka bar, but he doesn't want you to catch his cold.") Indeed, if you so desired, you might could combine conditional modal verbs all day long--although whether you oughta should is another question.

In rare cases, triple modals step forth to express a degree of trepidation not afforded by mere double modals. Consider: you might oughta should load the dishwasher before you go to bed, but you really oughta should unload it first. Indeed, next to the combined modals, a single waffly standard English should can sound downright bossy in Southern American English.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Flying home

It's not often that a terrorist tries to blow up an airplane four days before my family flies internationally. As we prepared to leave Germany, we wondered how the near-disaster over Detroit would impact our travel experiences.

On Monday, we strode fearlessly into the Munich airport three hours before our flight. After checking in, we had to stop by the Zollamt (Customs office) to declare S's new German bike frame. The customs guys didn't particularly care about what was in the giant box, but they did eye S suspiciously because his passport had no proof of Abmeldung (un-registering) from the city of Freiburg.

We had to go through two security checkpoints in Munich. The first screening was for all passengers for all flights. We had to take off our jackets, empty our pockets, and set out our laptops. I received a boob-and-underarm invasive pat-down by a humorless security woman who didn't appreciate my well-honed tickle reflexes. Cameras, batteries, cables, plugs, cell phones, and suspect Lebkuchen had to be removed from assorted backpacks and run again through the scanner. We were chided for not placing small amounts of lotion and toothpaste in a resealable plastic bag, but were allowed to keep them anyway. Top Travel Tip #1: to avoid having them confiscated, put liquids in the same bag as your electric toothbrushes.

A second screening in Munich was reserved specifically for flights to the U.S. We had to take off our jackets and take out our laptops. I received a second boob-and-underarm invasive pat down. My shoes were patted down too and then sent back through the scanner. No one cared about the Lebkuchen, cameras, batteries, cables, lotion, or toothpaste.

We flew across the ocean on a comfortable Airbus 330. The captain had disabled the GPS tracking option on all passengers' personal viewing screens. Fortunately for us, the would-be terrorists on board were too stupid to know how to use wrist watches and the remaining-flight-time information.

We claimed our luggage in Philadelphia. Instead of paying for two baggage carts ($4 each--they're free in Germany), we hired a guy with one big cart. The porter had no clue anyone had tried to detonate explosives on an airplane on Christmas. "Really? Gee!" he said after I told him about it.

We had to yield a banana and a clementine to the Ag Inspection folks. They didn't make us put any of our six suitcases or S's bicycle through the scanner, as that would have been too much work for the porter. Top Travel Tip #2: Hire a porter; porters have connections with other airport employees and can call in favors on your behalf. Top Travel Tip #3: Bring lots of luggage; having lots of luggage increases space for stashing insect-infested fruit while decreasing the liklihood Ag agents will actually scan for it.

After checking our luggage on to RDU, we had to go through another security line in Philly. The friendly TSA guy was asking tongue-tied travelers for proof that their passports were legitimate; we assured him ours were good to go, as we had just bought them last week in Munich. At the conveyor belt, we took off our jackets and shoes and got out our laptops. No one patted us down, and no one asked us to open any of the backpacks. Top Travel Tip #4: Stick with American rather than European airports to avoid the hassle of heightened scrutiny during TSA orange-level alerts.

Alas, alas

Now cracks a noble root. Good-night, sweet houseplant;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
--William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Creeping Ficus of Denmark, Act V, scene ii

Thus die I, thus, thus, thus.
Now am I dead,
Now am I fled;
My soul is in the sky:
Leaves, lose thy light;
Stems take thy flight:
Now die, die, die, die, die.
--William Shakespeare, "The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Orchid and Schefflera," A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act V, scene i

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


In anticipation of returning to the U.S. at the end of this month, I figured I might oughta should stake out some new blog territory. This post is a place holder, as an empty blog is a pitiful thing.